The Victorian age is making a comeback, with recent books on Tennyson and Stevenson and dramatization of Dicken's life and works on TV. And one thing is increasingly clear: The Victorians weren't the prim, repressed, superconfident, and superbly elegant ancestors we once imagined; they were profoundly uneasy -- about "progress," about industrialism, about religion. Many, Thackeray among them, could look back nostalgically to the 18th century as one of relative assurance.
This interesting, if uneven, biography fits Thackeray neatly and convincingly into his time. Anne Monsarrat concentrates mainly on the novelist's career in the knockabout world of early Victorian publishing. Her emphasis seems appropriate for a writer who, like Thackeray, had to be concerned about the bottom line. Indeed, one chapter heading from "Vanity Fair" seems appropriate for several chapters in this biography: 'How to live on nothing a year."
But though rewarding in many ways, Monsarrat's approach also presents problems. Thackeray's life was complicated, and this account doesn't always do justice to the crucial early years, when Thackeray was emerging as a rival of Dickens. Important early works, such as "Vanity Fair," seem obscured in a mass of lesser detail. The second half of Thackeray's life, however, is treated with order and insight, making it the more appealing part of the Mosarrat account.
Born to English colonists in India in 1811, Thackeray was shipped back to Britain shortly after the death of his father. After pursuing theater and sketching at school and at Cambridge and gambling away his inheritance by age 19 , he dithered between literature, the law, and magazine illustration before finally taking up free-lance reviewing and making attempts at novels.
Gradually Thackeray became known for an outrageous sense of humor. He contributed to Punch under the pen name of Michael Angelo Titmarsh. In conversation, he loved to torture friends with puns, such as his declaration that, as a man of letters, he might find better employment with the Post Office. And, indeed during those early professional years, he had to think seriously about alternatives; Dickens was always two steps ahead and creditors one step behind.
With marriage in 1836 and the serialization of "Barry Lyndon" in 1844 Thackeray seemed on the way to success. But then came a sad blow. After the birth of his second child, his wife went mad, spending the rest of her life in rest homes. Thackeray was forced to juggle his career with caring for her and raising the two children.
Monsarrat persuasively points out that in "The Newcomes" Thackeray gave the world of mid-Victorian London its definitive treatment" with such precision that wordly men's daughters were forbidden to read it." As Monsarrat shows, it was the ordinariness of the people Thackeray wrote about -- from whatever class -- that excited and shocked Victorian readers. She quotes an actress as complaining, "Really it is so provoking of Thackeray that he will make his heroes and heroines marry the wrong people just as they do in real life."
In Thackeray's late years, when his success was at last secure, he began a popular and lucrative lecture series on the writers and monarchs of the 18th century.
Despite his satire on wealth (he had coined the word "snob" to deplate pretention), he succumbed in the end to its allure, showing more concern for his ledgers than his craft and adjusting his lecture schedule to accomodate some aristocrats leaving London for a vacation. He had suffered too much, it seems, to resist when the pretentious called.
The strength of Monsarrat's book is that it documents a figure who, across time, seems so clearly our own contemporary.